LETTER FROM AMERICA
What you did not hear from Denver
PEOPLE WHO have not gone through a General Convention often do not know what happens there, because so much of the important work is done by the committees, which the press does not cover very well. As a rule, no matter how carefully worded an orthodox resolution is, the particularly orthodox wording is stripped out in the committee, and something blander or more politically acceptable put in its place.
Some readers will say that I am being cynical. You might say that, but you would be wrong.
I will take as examples two resolutions which the Bishops passed unanimously and with no discussion. I choose them almost at random, simply because they were on the list of resolutions the Bishops were considering when I wandered into the press gallery late one afternoon. Both passed with no difficulty whatever.
The two resolutions
The first, "Raising Awareness of Adoption," began its life affirming "the value of adoption and recognizing] it is in the best interest of the child to be adopted by a stable family with a mother and father to nurture him or her." It also declared that the General Convention "encourages its clergy to recommend adoption as an alternative to abortion when counselling parishioners facing an unplanned pregnancy."
This would seem fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. It reflects every biblical teaching beginning with God's creation of the human family at the very beginning of Genesis. It reflects the growing body of secular scholarship, by writers like David Blankenhorn and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, on the necessity to a child of having both a father and a mother. It does not even imply that single-parent families cannot be good families, even if they are not the ideal.
The resolution would seem perfectly unobjectionable. But no, not at the General Convention. The second declaration disappeared entirely, because, I am sure, no implication that abortion is not a good thing will be allowed.
The first remained, with two small but significant changes. "Family" being too exclusive, or heterosexist, or insensitive, or something, "person or" was added before it. And "with a mother and father" was taken out, presumably for the same reasons.
Now, you will say, that it is certainly is better for a child to be adopted by a single parent than aborted or left in foster care. This would be true, and would be the line the "centrists" on the committee would offer, but it is in the very best interest of the child to be adopted by a family with a mother and father, than by a single person. It is the normal and biblical family the resolution refused to approve or even acknowledge.
The second resolution, rather clumsily titled "Biblical Literacy Resolution," began by urging each parish "to offer a program of systematic Bible Study . . . as a means of empowering the baptized to live out their Baptismal promise to 'continue in the apostle's [sic] teaching and fellowship." It then affirmed the Lambeth Conference's resolution III.1 on the authority of Scripture.
That resolution began (the full resolution follows at the end) by "recognizing the need in our Communion for fuller agreement on how to interpret and apply the message of the Bible," and then "reaffirm[ed] the primary authority of the Scriptures." It appealed to "our best traditions and scholarship" because "the Scriptural revelation must continue to illuminate, challenge and transform cultures, and ways of thinking." It closed by urging the Anglican Churches to promote Bible study programs at every level.
The resolution, you will note, is perfectly normal traditional Christianity. It is, if anything, rather bland. It does not even touch the very difficult questions of how Scripture is to be interpreted, or to what "best traditions and scholarship" refers. It did not touch the long-controverted question of the relation of the authority of Scripture to the authorities of tradition and reason, nor the equally controverted question of how to apply the biblical teaching to the present.
It is perfectly normal statement of Christian belief, and perfectly acceptable to any Christian. On top of which, it was just approved by a large majority of the world's Anglican bishops, including most of the American bishops. It is, one would think, truly uncontroversial.
And it disappeared entirely in the committee. Not a line, nor a reference, not a paraphrase was left. All the committee left, and the bishops approved without a peep of protest or an attempt to reinstate the Lambeth resolution, was the urging to parishes to offer Bible studies.
Politically, the bishops had little choice. If they managed to get their House to reinstate the language - and they probably would not have been able to - the resolution would not have gone back to the House of Deputies in time to be passed before the end of Convention. It would have died, and the encouragement of Bible study with it.
I can understand even the conservative voting for it without trying to improve it. I am not blaming them. What I am trying to do is explain what happens to resolutions at General Convention.
To the extent these resolutions are covered by the press, secular and religious, you will hear that the Episcopal Church supported adoption and Bible study. What you will not hear, but what will tell you a great deal about the General Convention, is what the Episcopal Church refused to support.
* * *
RESOLUTION III.1 OF THE 1998 LAMBETH CONFERENCE
This Conference, recognizing the need in our Communion for fuller agreement on how to interpret and apply the message of the Bible in a world or rapid change and widespread cultural interaction, reaffirms the primary authority of the Scriptures, according to their testimony and supported by our own historic formularies; urges that the Biblical text be handled respectfully, coherently, and consistently, building upon our best traditions and scholarship believing the Scriptural revelation must continue to illuminate, challenge and transform cultures, and ways of thinking, especially those that predominate today; invites the provinces, as we open ourselves afresh to a vision of a Church full of the Word and full of the Spirit, to promote at every level biblical study programs which can inform and nourish the life of dioceses, congregations, seminaries, communities and members of all ages.
David Mills, a senior editor of Touchstone, is editor of The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans).
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